Better known in motorsport circles as ‘Wattie’, Northern Ireland born John Watson is perhaps not given enough credit for his achievements in a racing career that has spanned over twenty years, netting him five Grand Prix victories and very nearly a World Championship title.

He started out racing an Austin Healey Sprite in the mid-1960s before switching to open-wheelers, where he proved extremely quick in Ireland and the UK. He graduated to Formula 2 in 1970, but suffered a huge accident at Rouen that left him with a broken arm and leg. He returned, undaunted, the following year, and put several fancied runners to shame in his now-elderly Brabham BT30, which he ran privately.

His performances caught the eye of the Hexagon group, who wrangled a deal with Bernie Ecclestone for the one-off lease of a Brabham BT37 for Watson to race at the 1973 British Grand Prix. He had another outing at the end of the year, and negotiated a full-time drive with Hexagon for the 1974 season.

John Watson, 1977

John Watson, 1977

That year proved more successful. He showed the street circuit nous – for which he became rather famous – with his first points finish at Monaco, and he backed that up with several more impressive performances once he had use of the newer-spec BT44.

When Hexagon’s plans of expansion fell through, Watson’s past contacts landed him a drive with the Surtees team in 1975. Aside from some flashes in the non-championship races, the TS16 rarely ran reliably that year and team owner John Surtees opted to suspend operations at the end of the year, leaving Watson free to approach the new Penske team when its seat became vacant following the death of Mark Donohue.

Watson and Roger ‘The Captain’ Penske clicked, and while it was something of a tough start, the car steadily improved to the point that he was a serious frontrunner by the end of the season, peaking with his first victory – and Penske’s sole win – in the wet at Austria.

Penske returned Stateside at the end of the year, and Bernie Ecclestone lost no time in signing up Watson for the 1977 season alongside Carlos Pace. Tragically, Pace was killed shortly after the season of the season, which saw Watson thrust into the role of team leader in a very unproven car. He had a near-win at Paul Ricard (fuel pick-up problems denying him on the final lap) but showed enough decent results in 1978 to ensure he was selected at McLaren when James Hunt decided to retire.

It wasn’t a great career move at the time. McLaren’s fortunes were on the wane as it failed to grasp ground effect technology, and Watson found himself outshone by a newcomer teammate called Alain Prost. But things picked up in 1981 with the introduction of the John Barnard-designed MP4, the sport’s first carbon fibre monocoque. Victory at that year’s British Grand Prix helped re-establish him as a frontrunner once again.

John Watson, 1982 Italian GP

Watson came close to winning the 1982 World Championship title for McLaren.

The 1982 season saw Watson as an unlikely championship challenger until the very end, with excellent drives to victory at Zolder and Detroit countered by the odd rough showing that meant he was an outsider by the time of the season finale in Las Vegas. Needing to win to remain with a chance of claiming the championship, he finished second to hand the title to Keke Rosberg.

He had just one more season in F1 – the highlight being another ‘burn from the stern’ drive to victory at Long Beach – before Prost’s unexpected sacking from Renault ensured he would be squeezed out McLaren at the end of the season.

He ventured off to sports cars with the Rothmans Porsche, Silk Cut Jaguar and Toyota teams over the next decade, before opting to hang up his helmet and pursue a very successful career as a TV commentator.

Our encounter and interview with John came purely by chance during the Australian Grand Prix weekend. I’d just wrapped up another full length feature interview and spotted John in the background; I went up to introduce myself and request an interview later in the year, and he obliged to do it immediately. I had absolutely no notes on his career milestones and had to rely entirely on recollection to frame my questions. Below is the end result, and it’s an interview that I’m pretty proud of.

Full Name Nationality Born
John Marshall Watson British 4 May 1946, Belfast
First Grand Prix Last Grand Prix
1973 British Grand Prix 1985 European Grand Prix
Entries Races Non-Starts Wins Podiums Poles FLs Points DNFs
154 152 2 5 20 2 5 169 58

1973 Formula 1, Team MRD Brabham Ford Cosworth BT37 / BT42, 2 races, 0 points Not Classified
1974 Formula 1, Goldie Hexagon Racing Brabham Ford Cosworth BT42 / BT44, 15 races, 6 points, 15th overall
Formula 1, Team Surtees Ford Cosworth TS16, 11 races, 0 points
Formula 1, JPS Team Lotus Ford Cosworth 72F, 1 race, 0 points
Formula 1, Penske Cars Ford Cosworth PC1, 1 race, 0 points
1976 Formula 1, Citibank Team Penske Ford Cosworth PC3 / PC4, 16 races, 1 win, 3 podiums, 20 points, 7th overall
1977 Formula 1, Martini Racing Brabham Alfa Romeo BT45, 17 races, 1 podium, 9 points, 13th overall
1978 Formula 1, Parmalat Racing Brabham Alfa Romeo BT45 / BT46, 16 races, 3 podiums, 25 points, 6th overall
1979 Formula 1, McLaren Ford Cosworth M28 / M29, 15 races, 1 podium, 15 points, 9th overall
1980 Formula 1, McLaren Ford Cosworth M29B / M29C, 14 entries, 13 races, 1 DNQ, 6 points, 11th overall
1981 Formula 1, McLaren Ford Cosworth M29F / MP4, 15 races, 1 win, 4 podiums, 27 points, 6th overall
1982 Formula 1, McLaren Ford Cosworth MP4B, 15 races, 2 wins, 5 podiums, 39 points, 3rd overall
1983 Formula 1, McLaren Ford Cosworth MP4-1C / MP4-1E, 14 races, 1 win, 3 podiums, 22 points, 6th overall
1985 Formula 1, McLaren Ford Cosworth MP4-2B, 1 race, 0 points, Not Classified

What are your thoughts regarding the new regulations and what have been your impressions of the 2014-spec Formula 1 cars?

Well clearly, the sounds are different and in a way, I think more about the race fans who come to see Formula 1 in 2014. Comparing that to 2013 and the 18-odd years prior to that, we had screaming V10s and V8s. So, your motorsport fans still have screaming V8s but they’re in your domestic V8 Supercar support events – for example – not in Formula 1. So, it’s a big difference in my view and it maybe in time we will embrace the sounds of a V6 turbo.

Personally, I would like to have them sound a little bit more as I would think a Formula 1 car might sound, but we are where we are. And at the end of the day, I think the sound will become incidental if we’ve got really great, entertaining motor racing. So, I think the sound is just sort of a bit of a loss leader. It will be nice to have it but if everything else delivers, then I don’t think people are going to worry about it.

And from an aesthetics and design standpoint?

I think one of the problems in the current Formula 1 has got is that if you think back to the era when I was a Grand Prix driver in the 1970s and 1980s, there’s a very distinct design difference between the teams and manufacturers.

John Watson Interview

John Watson speaks with us in the paddock

If you painted our cars white, you could tell a McLaren, from a Brabham, from a Ferrari, from a Tyrell. But if you painted the current breed of cars white, undoubtedly the anoraks would maybe pick up the differences. But the public at large wouldn’t have a clue. I wouldn’t have a clue. And the reason that is brought this about is that innovation in the sense that I enjoyed in the 1970s and 1980s has now effectively changed into macro-innovation, where you get really, really clever people like Adrian Newey and others in the pit lane, who take us into rules and regulations and apply very, very, very subtle interpretations.

And from that perspective, what they’re doing is absolutely unbelievable but it’s not for the public, it’s for the paddock. The people I think about that I grew up with – the likes of Colin Chapman, Gordon Murray, Gordon Coppuck, Derek Gardner, Gerard Ducarouge, it goes on – every car of theirs had a distinct shape and an identity. And I believe that that’s something that’s quite important. But innovation as we knew in those days are now much more subtle today. The evolution of wind tunnel development and electronics coming into Formula 1, you have to try and control to some degree what these very bright people in Formula 1 teams are capable of generating.

And what we’ve now got is a formula where it’s almost designed by the FIA to such a degree. There’s very little room left for that kind of interpretation that I was familiar with in my era.

If we rewind back to a little boy growing up in Northern Ireland, what triggered your first fascination with motorsport and for you to go, “Right, I want to be a racing driver.”?

Well, I grew up in a family where my father raced in local races in Ireland. Probably the first time that I had a sort of Damascus-type experience was in 1955 where I raced in the Tourist Trophy. It was held at a circuit just outside Belfast, called Dundrod. It was a six-hour or so World Sports Car Championship race and at that time the top drivers in the world were sports car drivers as well as Grand Prix drivers.

And I saw factory Mercedes, Astons, Jaguars, Mercedes, Maseratis, whatever. And seeing those cars and the drivers of the day, it was a childhood dream come true.

Anyway, so that was a real sort of a seminal moment of my life. And then, we were getting motorsport magazines and Autosport, whatever. And as a child, you pick the magazine up and you start to look through it and you dream. I was a child who had a dream and the dream was that one day, I would be one of the people that I was dreaming about.

The school I went to had gone bankrupt so that was the end of my formal education. My father had a motor business and the idea would be that I would step into that and then eventually, take over for my father. But I didn’t have the kind of instincts and skills that he had in that industry.

I was interested in being a racing driver and I took steps to focus and dedicate my life to my dream. And eventually, with the help of my family, they realized that they had a son who was not going to be at ease with himself until he had lanced the boil and they gave me the opportunity in 1970 to go into Formula 2.

And once I got my feet under the table, there was no real turning back. I mean, I was fortunate in that I was able to do sufficiently well enough to be able to be employed and then go on and win some Grands Prix and after that to move into other areas, particularly broadcasting.

So, my childhood dream has given me a professional career and today I’m here to come and see a new generation of Formula 1 evolve. So, I still have the dream but no longer as a driver.

I would still like to have a role in Formula 1 if it was available but I think that age is consideration for it. I’m not directly involved. I’m not a part of this generation.

Your first World Championship outing came in 1973 in a privately entered Brabham. What are your recollections of that first hit-out?

I’d actually done and driven in a [non-championship] Formula 1 race prior to that. At the end of the ’72 season – at the end of every season at that era – there was a race called the Victory Race at Brands Hatch.

I drove a car – a thing! – called the Eifelland Ford, which had very, very swoopy, very advanced aerodynamic bodywork. It was a development of the March 71 but with all the gizmos on it. It was entered and run by a company in London called Hexagon of Highgate, who were a motor company and still are in the business.

The owner of the business, Paul Michaels, had run historic cars, Jaguar D-Types, Type 61 Maseratis. So he went into partnership with a guy called Tony Brown, better known to his friends as ‘Monkey’ Brown, who was from Dublin. He was a great motor dealer trader and Tony, I believe, did a deal with somebody called Bernie Ecclestone. I think he swapped a Roller [Rolls Royce] for the Formula 1 car. That was something really typical of the era.

Tony didn’t have anybody to run the car and that car got run in Ireland at a place called Phoenix Park. I drove the car there but it literally turned up on the back of a flat-bed truck and it was in a pretty poor condition. So, somehow, then an agreement was struck that we’d been running the Victory Race of Brands Hatch. Hexagon would prepare the car and they did a great job but it was run by a friend of mine, called Mike Earle, who would later go on to set up the Onyx F1 team in the late 1980s. And we got a sixth place in that race. So, that was my first proper Formula 1 drive.

John Watson, 1974 Italian GP

Pictured here, Watson pilots the brown Hexagon Brabham at the 1974 Italian Grand Prix. He qualified an excellent fourth, but finished a lapped seventh. A rear suspension joint failed in qualifying – he’d been fastest in the first sector to that point – and he crashed at the first Lesmo. He drove an older-spec BT42 with BT44 bodywork in the race. The spare machine was ‘night and day’ different and far less competitive. Who knows what could have eventuated had the suspension joint not failed?

Paul got enthusiastic and then went to Bernie and said, “Bernie, can I lease the car for the British Grand Prix, which was the BT37. We had it painted up in the international racing colors of the borough of Highgate and the color was brown. There were not been too many brown racing cars, and in terms of Formula 1, brown was a unique color.

I didn’t have a great qualifying for a couple of reasons. And therefore, where I’d been expected to be – the mid-pack – was the part of the grid that got caught up in Jody Scheckter’s incident in the exit of Woodcote. So by the time I got into Woodcote corner, there was enough signaling from the marshals to indicate there was a big, big problem and I was able to pick my way through the remains of the field and come through unscathed.

But when the race restarted, the car didn’t finish with some mechanical problem. But that got Paul really inspired and again, he went to Bernie, and acquired a BT42, which became the basis of the Formula 1 program that Hexagon embarked on [for a full season] in 1974.

There was a brief stint with Surtees in 1975 before your big break with Penske came along. Do former racing drivers make good team bosses?

At the end of ’74, Paul was planning to expand and run a two-car team. But late in the day, the realization was that he wasn’t going to be able to raise the funds to expand the team and had to wind the entire team up. So, I found myself at the end of ’74, on the unemployed driver list.

I’d driven for John Surtees in Formula 2 that year, so he then got in contact and said, “Look, I don’t have a driver.” He’d had a pretty awful ’74 and lost a young Austrian driver, Helmuth Koinigg, tragically in the final race of Watkins Glen. So, I was very happy to accept the opportunity because I always felt that it’s better to drive and be noticed than not to drive and therefore, fall out of people’s thoughts.

I had some good races with John and I enjoyed driving for him; and fundamentally, I think he’s a very good man. But of course, he was the World Champion in Formula 1 and also motorbikes. It’s quite difficult, I think – and this is not a criticism of John – but it’s a fact that you can’t change. He still probably had the ability to drive a racing car as quickly as anybody at the point he was running his team. And when you bring in another driver and then you start to think ‘The driver pulling my leg’ or ‘Does he know what he’s talking about?’… I hope I didn’t do that and I was very grateful for those opportunities.

John Watson, 1975 Race of Champions

Watson reunited with ‘Big John’ Surtees to headline the 1964 champion’s driver line-up in 1975. Aside from a second-placed finish at the Race of Champions (pictured here), it was as good as it got in a year fraught with mechanical difficulties.

But again, in 1975, there were two events where John wasn’t able to provide a car. One was Nürburgring and the other was Monza. And between those two events, a rather sad occurrence occurred in Austria where Mark Donohue lost his life driving the Penske. In those days, it was normal for drivers to wander around the paddock and talk everybody else in the paddock to see what’s going on.

The Penske team had expressed their view that if I was ever considering moving, would I let them know. Mark’s death brought that situation forward. So, because John hadn’t met what I felt was his requirement to run in all the Grand Prix, I was then free at the end of the year to drive in the US Grand Prix and at the back of that, I was able to sign a contract for Penske for 1976.

Your break came in Austria. The car was beautifully turned out and you landed up claiming victory in a year that was so dominated by the Hunt-Lauda battle. It was a huge achievement to Penske. Now what was that achievement like to you at that particular time?

John Watson, 1976 Austrian GP

Watson’s first win came at the 1976 Austrian GP.

It was a fulfillment for me of the dream. It was ironic that the win came at the very same venue where they lost Donohue, one of the iconic American racing car drivers the year before. Roger Penske is a very loyal person to people that he worked with, and Mark and Roger were a double act, probably unequal in American motor racing.

So it was sadly ironic that we won that race. And it was a race because the weather was damp at the start and it was slightly mixed in the beginning. But the Penskse had evolved into a good car by that point and I felt I had the capacity and the ability to drive it well and you know, to win that race.

At the following Grand Prix in Zandvoort, we should’ve won that as well. I was involved in an almighty battle with James and I was quicker running the back of the track. He was slightly quicker down the straight and I was all over him like a rash but I couldn’t quite make it stick, as I was having a problem with the gearbox. So the car was a good car and I was doing, I felt, a good job. But as you mentioned the season was ultimately about two drivers. James went on and maximized his opportunities and won the World Championship.

That win for you is also famous because until very recently, you remained the last driver to won the race with a beard and afterwards, you had to whip the thing off. That was due to a bet with Roger, wasn’t it?

Roger ran the team in a very clean cut – I would almost say Ivy League style – manner. Everyone talks about Ron Dennis being a stickler for presentation, but it was Roger who was the trailblazer. When I signed for the time, I had a beard but Roger didn’t ask me to shave the beard and I actually had wanted to get rid of the damn thing. But I didn’t want to feel that people might think I’d been asked or been told to shave it off. So, we ended up agreeing that if we won a Grand Prix, I would shave my beard.

We flew back to London that night after the win. Roger was flying on a Monday morning to the States. We agreed to have a breakfast meeting and then he was going to go to get his flight. So, I got into the hotel in the evening and I walked into the bathroom and looked at myself in the mirror, got the razor, got the lather on the beard and shaved it off on Sunday night. I came down to breakfast the following morning and I was dining before Roger and Heinz Hofer, the team manager.

I remember sitting in the breakfast room and I saw Roger and Heinz walking in and looking around. And Roger said, “Where is Watson? Where is Watson?” I said, “Roger, over here.” But I didn’t put my hand up. They hear the voice, “Where is he?” but they didn’t recognize me. He didn’t think I was going to shave the beard. Anyway, I couldn’t wait to get rid of the damn thing. So, that was my fulfillment. He delivered with the car and the team, and I did my bit to take the beard off if we won the race.

You occupy some unique position in the F1 statistics, one being the first driver to win a carbon-fibered car at Silverstone in 1981. It was also a win on as near to home soil as you could get. What was special for you about the victory?

I’m part of the United Kingdom all along. I’m an Irishman but a Northern Irishman and therefore, a part of Great Britain, whatever, it’s not worth getting into the deep politics!

The win had a lot of what you mentioned, a lot of uniqueness about it. I mean, I was winning effectively your home Grand Prix at Silverstone and my family was present. Carbon fiber had been used in Formula 1 but not in the matter in which [McLaren designer] John Barnard used it. He used it for the material that it is, not as a metal substitute. That was a very important point.

And it was a high-risk deal that was done because McLaren had had a previously unblemished record as a Formula 1 constructor but that gloss had come off in ’79 and in ’80 because McLaren basically hadn’t embraced ground-effect technology. But what John Barnard brought was that engineering knowledge and the carbon fiber technology.

Anyway, it was justified with the victory at Silverstone and everybody else ultimately had to follow suit because in order to achieve chassis stiffness with the narrower-bodied cars, you had to basically have to make it really heavy out of metal or use carbon fiber. So, John Barnard understood the material to use and engaged companies – not necessarily associated in motorsport – to borrow their technology and create a carbon fiber chassis that was safe and competitive.

John Watson, 1982 Detroit GP

Watson became synonymous with his ‘burn from the stern’ victories. At the inaugural Grand Prix on the tight and twisty streets of Detroit, Watson tigered through from seventeenth on the grid to claim victory, incredibly overtaking three cars on a single lap deep into the race. Less than a year later, he did it again at Long Beach: his victory from 22nd on the grid remains a record for the farthest back from which a modern-era Grand Prix driver has ever come to claim victory.

You were also famous for your ‘burn from the stern’ victories as well. There were those wins at Detroit in 1982 and at Long Beach in 1983, both of which came from well down the grid. What significance did those efforts have, given that street circuits don’t enjoy reputations by overtaking the best of times?

Detroit is very much a ‘matrix’ tracks, while Long Beach is more of a road track. We were on Michelin tyres at that time and our car was a very easy car in its tyres. And the tyre development was going more on the direction of the turbo-charged cars which are physically heavier, running more downforce in the way that they did in those days. They put more energy into the tyres, especially in qualifying. The weakness that we had was that we couldn’t get core tyre temperature on certain circuits – you get circuit temperature but we needed to get the core temperature to make the car work.

But when you put fuel in the car for the racing, the additional static weight puts a lot more energy and load into the tyres and because you weren’t doing a one lap dash the car came alive and it was a very good race car. Once we got that car in its working area, it was very raceable and drivable. I like to think I was a good race driver, as a good overtaker, and I was able to make progress through the field. I don’t think I was doing anything particularly special, I was doing my job. But I think probably I was good.

Maybe I also didn’t predetermine what’s possible and what’s not possible which sometimes Niki did. Sometimes he would look at the situation and say, “Well, I can’t pass. I can’t do the shortcut.” Well, I didn’t do that.

In Detroit, I caught him and passed him. He was one of the three cars I passed in one lap. He’d been sitting behind the other two for lap after lap, can’t pass, no way to pass. I came along: bosh, bosh, bosh. And then all of a sudden he found a way to pass Eddie Cheever and Didier Pironi. He sat behind them for 15 or so laps.

Yeah, he had. I remember you just started to approach them and just zipped straight by.

I went straight by. So, that was my strength and in a sense, I used some of his control over what he believed was possible [against him].

And it happened again in Long Beach, where I had an even bigger difficulty in qualifying because of not being able to get the tyre temperature. When the race started, we moved forward in tandem and I didn’t let Niki get away. When he made a move, I was on his gearbox; so we had both of us passing in tandem. But eventually, we got to a situation where we’re in the lead and I felt comfortable and confident that I could take the lead to the race, which I did with a fairly old bold move and it happened at the end of the straight. He didn’t think it was very nice but that wasn’t intentional. I got the lead and won the race.

So, again interestingly, one of the more salient observations on the weekend came from Niki’s trainer, a great man called Willi Dungl, who in effect for the team were using to look after both drivers at this stage. He said after the race: “I knew you were going to win it.” And the reason he knew that is because following the Brazil Grand Prix, I went straight to Long Beach with Willi and I had a week or so of unbroken attention from him. There was the physical work, the dietary, all these things, and I was very well prepared. And he also saw a strength in me which he knew if that could be tapped into, I was going to be a very formidable competitor and that race is an example of that.

You came close to winning the 1982 Drivers’ Championship title, which was such a bizarre season….

But ’82 was a year when there were probably eight or ten drivers who, for one reason or another, may have won the World Championship. That’s a championship that was lost by McLaren and by me as a part of the team. We should’ve won it and the trouble was we went to the finale in Las Vegas a long way behind Rosberg. All he had to do was finish fifth. His job was easier than mine. Mine was clearer: I had to win the race. That’s all I could do.

Shit or bust if you say.

Yeah. I mean, I got into second place and for some reason Michele Alboreto in the Tyrell was extremely strong that day and I while I was able to close him down, I couldn’t challenge for the victory.

Your success in ’82 has led you to stay on with McLaren but you left at the end of 1983, reportedly after a falling out with Ron Dennis. Can you set the record straight about what happened?

I didn’t have a falling out with Ron.

The final Grand Prix of the year in South Africa was on the Saturday as it was in those days. On the way back, on Saturday night, somebody from the team said, “I supposed we’re going to have to sit down and discuss you continuing in 1984 in the team.” I said, “Look, I’m ready to do it now. Let’s do it.”

On the Monday, I got a call from Lauda to say “Be very careful, Prost has just being fired by Renault and he’s trying to get your drive.” I’m big enough to understand the reasons, when McLaren were offered an opportunity like that, why they would take it. And the reason that they took it and the reason I lost my drive with them is not because of anything other than my contract for McLaren have ended up in 1983.

So McLaren had the choice of renewing me for a further year or two, while Niki was under contract until the end of 1984; or you could take a guy eight years younger than me who was potentially going to be a World Champion.

Alain was the future. Niki wasn’t the future, I wasn’t the future; Prost has been kicked out by Renault. He’s going to have to be paid off by Renault. McLaren could bring him into the team virtually for nothing and have a potential World Champion on their books. So, there was nothing more than that. It was pure circumstance.

If that conversation that was struck up at the airport in South Africa had taken place, maybe a month earlier or two months earlier and the deeds of the agreement been signed and exchanged, then, I don’t know what Alain’s contract or what Alain’s career would have been.

Interestingly, I recently spoke to one of the people who was involved in all this and asked the question: “What would have happened in ’83 if Niki’s contract was expiring, I had a further year to go and Prost was available? What would you have done?” “Take Prost,” they said. That was the answer I got.

Equally, I also was a beneficiary of a similar situation. At the end of ’76 when Penske pulled out of Formula 1, I got a phone call from Roger in the middle of the night and explained, “I’m sorry John, I had to make certain decisions.”

The following morning, I went down to Penske and Heinz who was the team manager, both shell shocked, but they said they were going to ring Bernie. We rang Bernie and Bernie said, “Fuck off. You’re really taking the piss. I don’t believe you.” Eventually, he realized that this was for real.

So, we arranged that I would then meet Bernie in London that evening, bring my business manager with me and arrive at Bernie’s apartment in London at about 7 or 8 o’clock in the evening and agreed that I would drive for Bernie in ’77. Coincidentally, Clay Regazzoni was due to leave to fly to London the following morning to sign a contract to drive for Brabham because Martini were the sponsor and Martini wanted an Italian driver particularly and Clay was literally as near as you could get to an Italian. So, Bernie signed me because he knew me partly but also he really didn’t want the Martini to dictate that level of involvement in the team. So I walked into the situation having lost to drive and there was, 24 hours later, a new contract.

I have been both the beneficiary and the loser. It’s life. You can’t do anything about it.

Another memory that I have with you came from a piece I wrote a couple of years ago, a ‘How the hell did they walk away from that?’ and your accident at Monza in ’81 made the cut. Was that the biggest crash that you’ve had in your career?

It was the biggest one I ever had that was caught on television! Television was in its infancy in relation to Formula 1 but I had a much worse accident in terms of injury in 1970 in a Formula 2 event at Rouen in France. I had a rear tyre deflation going through a very, very fast corner and the car’s rear tyre broke away from the rim. I went into a spin and hit the barrier at one side, hit the barrier at the other side, and I ended up with a broken arm, leg, and ankle.

The Monza crash was spectacular and because of the flare and the fuel vapor explosion, although I was always moving away from that. In fact I didn’t even knew anything about it until I saw it that evening. It was a big impact but the integrity of the design of the McLaren undoubtedly protected me and did what it was designed to do. The parts that came off helped dissipate the energy in the accident, and it showcased what Formula 1 cars are designed to do.

You raise an interesting point as well in terms of the development of the Formula 1 car, particularly in terms of safety. The documentary Life on the Limit – where you are featured – focuses on the evolution of the sport and how much safer it’s become. If you’d been in a non-carbon fiber car, the result could have been much worse.

An aluminum chassis may triggered a fire, for example, or the chassis could be bent in such a way, but that’s speculation.

All you can take is what happened. And I was uninjured, walked away, and I didn’t even realize the magnitude of the incident until I got out of the car. When I saw the engine sliding across the track, I thought, “Who the hell has had an accident behind me? I didn’t realize it was my engine!

Post-F1, there were the stints in sports cars. You did a little bit with the Jordan Grand Prix Team just when it launched and you tested the car.

Eddie Jordan wanted somebody to drive the car who wouldn’t be a potential driver; he wanted a neutral party in the car. And Eddie begged, borrowed, and stole me to do it.

The benefit that I got out of it were simply driving a contemporary Grand Prix car and getting a little bit of knowledge, which would, in my view, would be beneficial in a broadcast. And he was Irish, I’m Irish, you know, I helped him out. And he never lets me forget it. I helped him out.

You’ve had lengthy stints doing broadcasting as well. I remember your F1 commentary when I was growing up and as well as the work that you did with the A1 Grand Prix.

That was good racing.

You’re behind the mic, how do you able to impart your knowledge as a racing driver?

I think when you stop Formula 1, some people go cold turkey, which I think is a very bad thing. You can’t just walk out of this paddock and go into a normal existence. So, in my case, I ended up competing in Group C sports cars, which were in fact very quick cars at the time. There’s a nice easing off from the more intense elements of a Grand Prix paddock. But you’re still motor racing and in good teams, good cars, and enjoying your life.

So eventually, we got to a point where it was going through a bit of a metamorphosis and I then was invited to do a couple of broadcast with BBC Radio and then with EuroSports and I find that this broadcast was a way of actually fulfilling all the buzz and excitement that I got as a driver through broadcasting.

And of course, you still have the buzz. You’re still in the paddock and still contributing to the Grand Prix scene. You’re not just hanging around and doing nothing. You’re actually doing something which is quite important to a Grand Prix. I got a great deal of enjoyment, a pleasure out of being in the paddock and working. And driving a microphone to me is second only to driving a Grand Prix car.

What is your favorite circuit that you’ve ever raced on?

There are lots of circuits that my generation of drivers enjoyed that were wonderful race tracks, and one of those is Watkins Glen. With the cars that we raced, at that time that was just brilliant. It was a really, really great circuit, had a great atmosphere and at the end of the year it was crazy. That was a bit like Woodstock for motor racing.

I also like Buenos Aires. I like the Autodromo in Buenos Aires because it was a circuit of the 1950s but it had all the modern facilities. I mean, obviously, places like the Osterreichring and Brands Hatch were wonderful circuits for the cars of the era, but completely inappropriate today.

Clearly I’m a fan of the old school circuits. Even some of the road tracks – Monaco, Long Beach and Detroit – weren’t my most favourite circuits, but I always made the best I could there.

Even Albert Park in Melbourne represent a lot of what I consider to be old school: the proximity of the public in the circuit, the fact that you’re going through a municipal park with all the values that that brings. You get a great buzz from the city.

I think Formula 1 must not forget that it’s not here to self-serve. It’s here to serve the public.

As you’re a self-confessed fan of the ‘old school’ circuits, what do you think of the latest generation of track designs by Hermann Tilke?

The circuits themselves are actually very good circuits. I’ve driven some of them. But it’s the lack of anything: reference points, character, there’s nothing there.

I think there’s an element that mistakes should be penalized or punished. How you do that, I don’t know. Here in Melbourne, a mistake will see you in the gravel trap or the wall.

On all of his circuits, you’re not going to hit anything if you go off the circuit. And I don’t think that’s how I perceived where the sport should have been going. But that’s the evolution of Formula 1.

You’ve segued perfectly to my last question. If current safety concerns were not as paramount as they perhaps are, would that be one of the aspects of the sport that you would like to see change? Could Formula 1 return to some of the more historic venues?

The problem is where we are now with Formula 1. The technology, the tyres and the cars mean you couldn’t today’s generation of cars because they would just outperform the circuits so grossly. It would be horrible.

Think of a circuit like Zolder, for example, which is a great little circuit in Belgium. If you took a 2014-era F1 car there, it would be horrendous.

The circuit is no longer the racetrack it was when it used to be used in F1. It’s now got an additional chicane at the corner where Gilles Villeneuve was killed. That totally destroyed the rhythm of the racetrack, but these small circuits with narrow track widths and little run off are no longer Grade 1 circuits. They are Grade 2 or Grade 3 FIA circuits and are no longer up to scratch.

Even somewhere like Watkins Glen, which is now owned by NASCAR and has been updated considerably from the time when I raced there so it now has lots of run-off that it never had before. I would love to see a current Formula 1 car race or drive around there, just simply because I’d like to see the look in the driver’s face when he get out of the car because it’s a fantastic circuit.

But I think the development over the last 30 years has just outstripped that style of circuit. Today’s drivers would be afraid to see what we were racing on. If they did it in our era of cars, they’d probably even be more frightened. There are no margins for error.

But that’s how it was in those days and if we probably then go back 50 years, before the era when Jackie Stewart brought in the big safety push. The 1960s and the 1970s weren’t that far apart. It was the beginning of a change.

Today the FIA has a computer model for every corner of every racetrack tracking the corner entry, mid- and exit speeds, and depending on the speed of the corner, it depends how far back the barriers have to be. So, if you’re going to have high speed corners, you have to have big areas of run-off.

I personally don’t want to see circuits dictated by this with a season of 20 modern Mickey Mouse autodromes. I don’t want that, that’s not Formula 1.

I want Formula 1 to be something that’s a challenge to a driver and part of that challenge is demanding corners, be them 120 miles an hour, 170 miles an hour. I want to see that challenge.

John Watson & Richard Bailey

Images via Corbis Images, Deviant Art, Pinterest,, The Cahier Archive

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Richard Bailey

Founder & Chief Editor at MotorsportM8
Hasn't missed a Grand Prix since 1989. Has a soft spot for Minardi. Tattooed with 35+ Grand Prix circuits.